Sunday, December 4, 2011

Go ahead, Kill your Darlings! On the Subject of Torturing Characters.

Most novice writers have heard the advice: “Make your characters suffer!” Aside from nudging us to give in to our most sadistic impulses, the advice seems a bit exaggerated. Should we, twisting the meaning of Stephen King’s injunction, “Kill our darlings?” What rationale deems it necessary?

We all understand the need to sometimes bump off a main character. What would be the point of The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote if their protagonists had lived to ripe old ages? Don Quixote would have ended in the madhouse, Gatsby in jail and Montagues and Capulets would go on feuding in the streets of Verona, until Doomsday. Death in novels always has an objective, to teach the reader (as well as other characters in the book) a moral lesson. Whether is Anna Karenina jumping in front of a train, or Sydney Carton climbing to the guillotine, there is a moral behind their death: It is a far better thing to die than to go on sinning or leading a dull meaningless life.

                                                  Gatsby´s murder

In Little Women, Beth March’s last days are a study in fortitude, but her death is also a rite of passage for Jo. After her sister´s demise, Jo grows more sedate, less impatient, and much more aware of virtues and values. Thus she becomes the right companion for worthy professor Baher. But Beth, Dickens’s Little Nell and Uncle Tom are boring characters. They are icons of suffering, archetypical victims. We don’t really cry over their woes. Because they endure their pain with almost inhuman resilience and resignation, we cannot identify with them. And that is the first good reason not to subject your character to Chinese torture.

We want our favorite characters to get a break, to get angry at life’s injustice, to fight back not to be beaten down and turned into martyrs. It´s why Jo March will always be more memorable than Beth. It´s why we love when Eliza hops over ice blocks to escape from slave catchers. She is the most outstanding character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, much more than the poor old slave whose name appears on the title.
Eliza's courageous flight
I particularly resent killing characters just to make another character suffer. Don Quixote gives a lovely speech and dies in his bed, but it is poor Sancho whom I mourn. His master has gone to fool’s heaven, but he remains on earth bereft of all the promises the Knight offered him, he has no island to rule, no riches to share with his family, no illusions. That is truly heartbreaking.  I wonder if Cervantes realized how unfair he was to Sancho.

Don Quixotes death
Was Hemingway aware of his unfairness to his characters in For Whom the Bells Toll? This classic Spanish Civil War tale describes the efforts of Robert Jordan, an American Professor fighting for the Loyalists, to blow up a bridge. The action takes place in a couple of days. Robert knows and we know that he´ll die. Therefore, we like him, but we don´t grow too attached to him

                                                 Robert and Maria

However, during this time, Robert meets a young girl named Maria. She has undergone every possible horror. She´s been uprooted from her home, her parents had been shot and she has been raped by the Fascists. Robert and Maria become lovers, he dies, and ... I am furious! What´s the point of making Maria suffer again and again? If at least she had been killed fighting alongside her lover, but to experience a bit of happiness and then greater loss? That is sheer cruelty.

Homer ends The Iliad with Hector’s death. Surely not an eye is dry after hearing of heroic Hector vanquished by Achilles who adds insult to injury by defiling his enemy´s corpse. That is sad, but sadder still is the fate of those left behind. And it took several centuries before Euripides dared to describe, in his plays Andromache and The Trojan Women, what Homer didn’t bear to do in his time: the fall of Troy, the murder of Hector´s parents, and the sorrows of his wife. Besides losing her man, Andromache has to see her only child tortured to death, while she is raped and forced to become a conqueror’s concubine.

                                                     Hector and Andromache
Bottom line, forget Hector (even if played by scrumptious Eric Bana), the one that really deserves our pity is Andromache. So I understand why Homer doesn’t tell us her terrible ordeal, or why Wolfgang Petersen gave her a happy ending in his film version of The Iliad. Isn’t that evidence enough that hurting loveable characters has a limit? Why advise it then?  There are those who claim that mistreating characters adds conflict and suspense to the plot, and suffering make characters evolve and grow. It reminds me of Victorian teachers who beat their students to make them strong.

I am the first to recognize Tolstoy’s genius but I don´t understand why he creates such a marvelous dashing character like Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace, just to make him unhappy, and finally kill him. To me, War and Peace ends with Bolkonsky´s death. I don´t care about dense Pierre or fickle Natasha. I can’t share their happiness since it is based in Andrei´s departure. The author must have realized his blunder because he ends his novel, not in Pierre and Natasha´s domestic bliss, but in Bolkonsky´s son vowing to grow up to be worthy of his father.

                                                     Natasha and Andrei

I love William Styron’s Sophie´s Choice, and I love Sophie despite her victimization at the hands of her creator. Throughout that thick volume we see Sophie suffer everyday. Not only does she bear the scars of her Auschwitz past, not only does she carry a guilty secret, but she goes through a daily ordeal living with a pathologically jealous lover (and schizophrenic to boot).

Eventually, Stingo (the narrator) pulls her away from abusive Nathan, and offers her redemption, but Sophie, after revealing her horrible secret, chooses death. All the torments she has endured, including her part in the death of her children, have not made her stronger or better suited for life. Strange but her suicide is a relief, I am happy her pain is finally over. Is that what we get from torturing characters to the point of no return? We want to mercy kill them!

Excuse me if  for a moment I wander into self-reference. As a child, I loved visiting with my mother´s side of the family, a bunch of enigmatic but extremely generous people.  Once, I must have been around nine years old, one of the uncles offered to take me to see the latest Disney’s flick. Full of self importance, I informed him that I was “too old” for cartoons. Now I only enjoyed “movies so moving that made me cry.” He looked at me as if was demented. “Why? The whole point of going to the pictures is to have fun,” he said ”not to suffer.” I didn’t realize it back then, but all these mysterious relatives, who spoke in odd languages among themselves and had funny numbers on their arms, had seen enough suffering to last them a lifetime. Now they wanted their entertainment to be “fun.”

As serious readers we shun superficiality, we demand realism, we wish for conflict, we need to see our characters struggling against odds, but we also long for balance. We want our beloved characters to prevail, to be rewarded for everything they have gone through. We want a glimmer of hope! That´s “fun." 

Don´t you agree? Were you ever upset or disappointed by a novel or film where characters went through too much unnecessary angst or had an undeserved unhappy ending? As a writer how do you maintain equilibrium between chastising and rewarding your characters?


  1. 'As serious readers we shun superficiality, we demand realism, we wish for conflict, we need to see our characters struggling against odds, but we also long for balance. We want our beloved characters to prevail ...

    Don't you agree?'

    In a word, YES.

  2. You are one quick lady! I had just posted it!

  3. As Violante shows, the characters we remember dying are usually either lovable or admirable. Steven King's victims are there just for shock value. How many names of his dead characters do you remember? They are mostly accessories to the plot, as they are in murder mysteries. In Agatha Christie's stories, only a murder case seems important enough to bother trying to solve. Regis

  4. In truth, Regis, what Stephen King meant by "Kill our darlings" was to rid our MS of clever sentences, supefluous subplots and characters, but he is a master in making caractes, specially children suffer. In Carrie´s case, he exceeds himself, killing her at the end, but he does save his little heroes in Cujo and The Shining

  5. I've only written one book but I had the main character end with some happiness in her life, as well as hard work, disappointment, aggravation, etc., etc.

    As I get older, I cherish entertaining things, even completely silly things. I think it is an important part of life.

  6. Let's see if I can organize my ideas (there's so much I have to say about this subject!)

    1. Yes, I've been extremely disappointed when there seems to be unnecessary and excessive suffering for the protagonist. An example of this is "The Thorn Birds" (I haven't read the book, but in the miniseries, the author takes everyone Meggie loves.) It's plain cruel. I absolutely despised the ending of this story.

    2. I find that this "eternal-suffering" is exploited to the max in telenovelas (and this is why they have such a bad reputation.) I think that most soap opera protagonists are "Beth March".

    3. I think there needs to be a reason (other than manipulating the audience) for killing a major character. I see that in many novels/movies characters die for no good reason. I think writers like Nicholas Sparks have turned this into their formula for success. I'm left wondering why Maria in Jorge Isaacs novel had to die (because she was in love with her cousin?) Or why does Jennifer die in "Love Story" (so that Oliver forgives his father?) But then again, the entire hook of LS is that she dies, right? (I mean, we learned that in the very first line.) I have seen instances when the death of a character through self-sacrifice tells something bigger about the human condition (the character of Will Smith in "I am Legend" comes to mind. He kills himself so that the human race survives.) So in a sense, this kind of endings can be uplifting.

    4. On the appeal of "crying films". There is a theory that states that readers/viewers seek "strong emotions" in their entertainment. (Incidentally, the same "appeal" theory exists in advertising: you appeal to sex, sadness, hunger, laughter, etc.) I think something similar happens in fiction. If the reader isn't "touched" by a character or circumstance, she/he may not connect with the story and therefore will stop watching/reading.

  7. I'll have to agree to Lorena's #4. Most suffering and death in a story has to do with what will reach out and grab the reader and make the work sell. Suffering, like sex, seems to be a selling point these days.

    As to books I've read and don't like the ending because a character is killed off, I'd have to say COLD MOUNTAIN. Such a long, drawn-out story just to have Inman die within days of his reunion with Ada was, in a word, dumb. I'd also have to say the book I just reviewed, AWAY. Lillian suffers through the whole book, and the reader is hoping, hoping, hoping that she gets reunited with Sophie. I won't ruin the ending though, and tell what happens. You can probably guess since it was a discouraging ending.

    ♥ Mary Mary

  8. Hi Cynthia Lee,
    I don´t think what you like is “silly” although others might called it that. Entertainment is half of what we seek in our books. I like my reading material to be both entertaining and inspiring, but there is nothing exciting about characters beaten down constantly, even if they remain alive at the end. You know that too much suffering will turn them into neurotic individuals; pretty unlovable creatures. It reminds me of how I felt when I was halfway through the Marquis de Sade´s Justine. It dawned on me that this was not a sizzling erotic story but just a bunch of psychotic perverts hurting a girl over and over again.

  9. Sister Lorena,
    What Meggie goes through in The Thorn Birds (book) is much sadder than in the miniseries, and it´s one of the reasons why it is not (wonderful as it is) among my fifty favorite books of all time.
    Maria’s death had nothing to do with being Efrain’s cousin. Colombia then and now has no problems with cousin marriage (A couple of decades ago, they had a president Turbay Ayala who was married to his niece). Moreover Jorge Isaac being Jewish considered cousin marriage a non-problematic union. The problem was that, fashionable novels of that period, in Europe as well as South America, had a trend. The heroine had to die. In fact most XIX century novels have a sad ending and the victim is usually a woman. Besides, like in Love Story, Maria is ill. We know from the start that she is doomed. Love Story was based on a true story that happened to Eric Segal’s student. He couldn’t change the end.
    I am still a cry-baby, I cry when animals suffer in movies, but I like the crying period to overlap with happy moments. I must add that I often cry in films when something joyful but moving happens.

  10. Sister Mary, Mary
    The Victorians had this didactic obsession to teach morality, so their characters suffered either because hey made sinful choices or because G-d was testing them. But we no longer live in Victorian society, so why Frazier forced us to read a huge thick book like Cold Mountain just to see the protagonist die at the end? Moreover, that book is based on The Odyssey, and Odysseus does not die, he rejoins his family and lives happily ever after in Ithaca.
    One extremely sad book that begot a sadder film still, is The English Patient, but the reader knows that The Patient (Count Almasy) has to die because he has lost everything including is own flesh (he is burnt all over). Yet, the good thing is that after his death, Hannah who has nursed him, has regained her desire to live, she has reconnected with the world and hopes for the future. So, in a way, the novel ends in an optimistic tone.

  11. Something in the comments reminded me of a novel which enthralled me when I was but a callow youth, as the poets say. I was at the age when the opposite sex was mysterious and entrancing, and the girl in the book fulfilled my dreams. Her name was Rima, a bird like creature of the Amazon Jungle, in Green Mansions, by W.H. Hudson. I still think it is one of the most beautiful novels of the English language. Descriptions of the forest, inhabitants and animals are marvelous, written in Victorian times without the typical stilted language of the time. Rima does die in a very spectacular and gruesome way, but if the book ended with the MC living happily with Rima in a jungle hut, like Tarzan and his mate, it wouldn't still be in my memory. You may read it on Gutenberg. com but it is erroneously listed under Henry Harford. An interesting biography of Hudson is at Regis

  12. Sorry, I forgot to mention that an absolutely terrible movie based on the book was made about 1950. It was one of those 'Sheena, queen of the jungle' type things, with Rima as a sexy temptress. It will probably show up on the Movie Channel. Avoid it unless you are looking for laughs.
    That's all I have to say---Really! Regis

  13. My apologies to all for my recidivism. I found reviews of Green Mansions, the movie. The year was 1959. Read them and go to bed smiling.

  14. I must be getting old or something, I forgot to to give you the site. It is: Regis

  15. Ahh Maria Elena,

    Excellent article, I don't know that I agree with you completely, but I certainly enjoyed reading of your frustrations.

    I don't remember War and Peace as clearly as you but the important thing in Pierre and Natasha surviving was their growth, was it not? Yes, Andre was a magnificent character worthy of admiration but he always was and thus always will be. What moves people is to see flawed characters become more whole.

    Speaking of Tolstoy, wasn't Anna Karenina meant to suffer? I for one was quite happy when she threw herself in front of the train. In fact, I found it to be justice for her selfishness.

    I hated to see Augustus McRae killed by Indians in the Sioux territories. He was the best character of McMurtry's writing career and a great source of joy to me as a reader. But could the book have finished any other way? I dare say not.

    Along that vain, wasn't it Mariko's knowing and foreshadowing her own death what made her sacrifice so special in Shogun?

    In the popular 1957 movie, Bridge on the River Kwai, the english Colonel Nicholson, dies in most dramatic fashion. After working so hard to preserve the remnants of his regiment Colonel Nicholson's last realization is that he has done so at the expense of enabling the Japanese war effort, of which he was a personal recipient of torture to say the least. His dying act was to reverse his own foolishness by falling on the plunger which ignited the explosive destroying the bridge that he and his men had built.

    Can there be not better end to that story? I think that Nicholsons's dying act was selfless and redemptive by any measure, despite his vain and foolish attempts to build the magnificent bridge that he did. In fact Nicholson's death changed my view of a failing character from a man of great vanity and overwhelming ego to a man who was simply a hero. What is wrong with that?

    So, this humble reader says go ahead kill (or torture) your babies if you must. Particularly if you are in search of drama. Without sacrifice it seems very un-real if nobody the reader loves can ever get hurt...

    Major H

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Dear Regis,
    Ahh Where shall I start? Hudson’s novels had a tremendous influence on Latin American writers (even the Boom Generation. Vargas Llosa named his “La Casa Verde” after Green mansions) I happen to love the film, and cried when Audrey Hepburn (Rima) was killed. I guess Hudson´s message was that Rima belonged to that jungle world, and if she had continued with Abel, she was bound to leave the jungle which would have brought disastrous consequences to her. In fact Vargas Llosa shows what happens when his Rima like character Bonifacia is forced to abandon the jungle. Moreover, Rima is the last of her kind; everything that was part of her is gone.

  19. Dear Major H:
    Colonel Nicholson´s death is one necessary death. I can’t imagine what sort of life he would have left if he had survived the camp. So the author gives him a chance to redeem himself (accidentally) by blowing up his beloved bridge.
    I don´t have a problem with death if it saves others, or if the victim has nothing left to fight for, and life seems a worse fate than death. I suppose the Lady Mariko’s sacrifice (what a wonderful character) is because, in her immense wisdom, she knows her love for Anjin-San is hopeless and she won´t be able to live without him. So yes, I cry buckets over her death, but I understand her (and the author’s choice). My problem is when characters do have a choice of a better life and they are killed. Or worse, when the author tortures them to the point that they (and you) are begging for death.
    Yes, I was thinking about that. Andrei remains stolidly unchanged. Pierre, on the other hand, tries different paths to achieve happiness and he learns through the process.
    My first college paper was a comparison between Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. I thought it was an easy subject. Obviously Emma was bad and Anna was good. Wrong! By the time she jumped in front of the train I was about to push her myself. Tolstoy is a master in showing how wrong decisions, guilty conscience and jealousy can turn a lovely woman into a nasty creature.
    About that Wouk novel that we both loved, you notice almost all important characters remain alive. Who dies? The Henry brother nobody cares about. Ben? And the Jastrow brothers, that was sad but Nathalie is alive at the end, she is reunited with Byron, and her little boy is also found. That is a good ending. Nathalie suffered horribly throughout two novels, but at the end of the war she has survived, she has learned and she gets her reward.

  20. I did however read a book this year where I actually wanted the innocent little girl to die. If she wouldn't have I was going to call up the author and complain. She did die in a wonderful way. I was so relieved I called him anyway and congratulated him on a wonderful plot. I've never never wanted the hero to die before. It was shear genius. We had a wonderful conversation and I made a friend out of the deal. lol. I was so impressed I interviewed him on my blog!

  21. Hi Tanya,
    Now you got me all curious. What book is that?

  22. A certain kind of story-consumer likes the suffering. My dad and my husband love stories with suffering ... maybe it's a dude-thing? My mom jokes that she can't find a movie she and Dad can watch anymore unless everyone dies, and my kids say much the same thing about their dad. I imagine the catharsis is what works for such a consumer, but *why* that should be is a complicated question. I don't mind die-off as long as there's a sense of overcoming on some level. Total bleakness isn't that appealing. But just a grain of a sliver of hope can be enough for many people.

    Personally, I've always loved stories with physical suffering -- one of the first I fell in love with was "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" by Joan Aiken. The two little-girl characters suffer cold, hunger, and cruelty, but every few chapters this was alleviated by warmth, food, and affection. The lack of the former made the latter delicious ... I lapped it up. It was/is similar to the feeling of intense exercise, or days-long camping trips. It's like an emotional preparation for difficult times, a reminder that there might be a payoff if you stick with it.

    "Cold Mountain" felt like a bit of a cheat. You physically suffer with the protag, and he dies anyway ... but you're supposed to be comforted by the fact that his seed carries on to another generation. A lot of novels use this gimmick. It's ... gimmicky. I loved a lot of things about that book, but didn't care for this ploy.

  23. Sister Stephanie you made tree good points
    1. Total bleakness isn’t appealing
    2. We can enjoy the Mc going through bad times as long as we know that he/she will get a happy rewarding ending
    3. Otherwise we feel “cheated."That´s how we feel at the end Cold Mountain. It´s how I feel at the end of War and Peace. Not only has Bolkonsky died, but his sister pious Maria marries Nikolai who in order to get her dowry dumps his true love, Cousin Sonya. At the end of the novel Sonya is seen as a poor relation, living off the charity of her family, serving as nursemaid to other people´s children. It´s not only untimely and purposeless death that I begrudge, but sad empty lives. I hate novels that end with lonely unhappy women whether it´s The Valley of the Dolls or Eugenie Grandet. At least Henry James gave his spinster in The Heiress a chance to get even with the man that jilted her.

  24. Pierre was my favorite character in W&P, and I was so happy when he married Natasha at the end. I was totally against Natasha marrying Andrey because I was really turned off by the huge age difference. (I know things were a bit different in the early 19th century, but that doesn't mean I can't be squicked out by the thought of a teen girl engaged to a guy in his thirties.) At least by the time Pierre and Natasha marry, their seven-year age difference isn't so big anymore.

    I was so pissed by the ending, when Nikolay married that annoying religious fanatic Mariya instead of Sonya. That was totally not the ending I'd wanted.

  25. Natasha says something vey mean about Sonya around the end of the book. Maria expresses her guilt over what she sees her unfairness to Sonya, but her sister-in-law dismisses her qualms. I only have my Spanish version in front of me, but Natasha calls Sonya “a barren flower” She says that once she longed for Sonya to marry Nicolay, but she always knew it would not happen. She ends up saying that although sometimes she feels sorry for Sonya, others she thinks her cousin doesn’t feel pain. That is so cruel!

  26. 1984's ending didn't phase me; for instance, it was effective.

    That said my own work is contains an endless amount of suffering. It also has love as a central theme.

  27. 1984 is a bleak vision of the future, so it should have an unhappy ening


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.